Music + ecology = ecomusicology; Artists explore musical sounds in Driftless nature

Jordan Gerard

Nature already has a musical sound of its own, but what if an artist take tuning elements like piano wire and create playable instruments within the trees?

That was the goal of one of two citizen-artists at Crystal Creek Citizen-Artist Residency’s second session. The program hosts one to two artists per each one-week session. The goal is to connect with the people and places of Houston County and share their skills.

Nick Byron Campbell created an “arbow,” which is a temporary musical instrument using piano wire and tuning elements to turn a tree into a playable instrument, without harming it.

The arbow was created with piano wires hung from tree branches and weighted down with limestone rocks. 

Campbell used a violin bow to play the arbor-inspired instrument. He used contact microphones to amplify the sound. He also had to play by ear to find the specific notes on the arbow.

“It sounds more like a horsehead fiddle, which is an Asian instrument,” Campbell said. 

In creating the sound installment, he said he didn’t put a lot of thought into the first arbow he created, but he likes to react to the place when he is writing music.

“A lot of experimental music is made to push boundaries in uncomfortable ways for the listener, whereas, I […] create musically pleasing experiences that welcome listeners to be part of the music and disappear into it if they choose,” he said, in a press release. 

Campbell grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, but began his musical career as part of the band “Arizona” while based in New York City. He then moved to Los Angeles and began experimenting in sound art installations.

However, he was frustrated by the limitations of traditional recording and performing, so he started finding unique ways to present music that would be visually interesting, sonically beautiful, and conceptually compelling, the release states. 

He decided to study ecomusicology, which is a broad field of study that considers intersections of music, culture and nature.

Through musical composition, performance and listening as well as studies of sound in a variety of built and natural environments, ecomusicology is an emerging field that draws from environmental studies, musicology, ethnography, media studies and environmental communication, the press release said.

“[My goal] is to expand the concept of how music can be created and enjoyed,” Campbell added. 

Participants at Friday night’s event at the Crystal Creek Canyon Lodge outside of Houston also had the chance to bring their own items from the nearby landscape to find out what sounds they can make and record those sounds.

They also found items such as dead leaves, rocks, sticks, bark and more outside near the lodge to make different sounds and record them.

The overall goal of this residency was to make the recordings into a musical piece. Campbell also played a piece of music that was composed of sounds he recorded at the Houston County Historical Society.

The second participating artist is James Spartz, who grew up in Rushford. He currently works as an assistant professor of environmental communication at Unity College in Maine.

His teaching and research interests include understanding the role of place in environmental communication, perceptions of land use change and cultural ecosystem services. 

“Ecomusicology isn’t mainstream,” he said. “We don’t think about ecology as a society.”

He added songs have to be creative in order to make people think. 

Spartz hopes to make significant progress on a research essay that connects cultural ecosystem services (e.g.: nature’s contributions to people), bioregional identity and place-based songwriting as ecocultural communication.

He recognizes place-based art to be “both highly particular and particularly transcendent.” 

This residency interested him in part because, “this is where I was born and raised,” making him feel particularly qualified to “understand the Driftless Area and its ecocultural landscape,” the press release said.

Spartz is especially excited to network with regional musicians and creative people, “in an effort to understand how the Driftless landscape and other ecological affordances inspire their work, builds on an emerging bioregional identity, and could be used to increase sustainable tourism in southeast Minnesota.”

The week kicked off with an open mic night at Mainspring in Caledonia featuring both artists and musician Ben Hippen from Decorah and poet and singer Lorraine Culver of Houston.